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SUMO: Natsu Basho 2017 (Day 14)

It’s Day 14 of the Natsu Basho and yokozuna Hakuho remains undefeated atop the leaderboard. Indeed, with Harumafuji’s loss yesterday, his closest competition are a trio of rikishi with 11–2 records—yokozuna Harumafuji, ozeki Terunofuji, and sekiwake Takayasu. Everyone else is now mathematically eliminated from the yusho [tournament championship] race.

Hakuho is now guaranteed at least a tie (and then a playoff) for the yusho. He faces Terunofuji today, and if he can beat the ozeki, he’ll have locked in the yusho . . . the only question remaining will be if he can make it a zensho [perfect record] yusho by defeating Harumafuji on senshuraku [the final day]. I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, and I certainly don’t want to jinx Hakuho (who hasn’t won a yusho since the 2016 Natsu Basho), but I have a hard time believing that Terunofuji will win today, particularly since he came up limping after his win over Tochiozan yesterday. Still, it should be a good, hard fought contest.

Harumafuji faces Goeido, who saved his kadoban [threat of ozeki demotion] status yesterday (thanks to the absences of Kakuryu and Kisenosato). Now the pressure is off Goeido and his performance against the top rankers doesn’t matter. Harumafuji, on the other hand MUST win to even have a CHANCE to stay in mathematical contention. The same is true for Takayasu, who faces M5 Shodai.

Looking at the top division overall (and discounting rikishi who are kyujo [withdrawn due to injury]) there are 15 rikishi who are already kachi-koshi [majority of wins] and 16 who are already make-koshi, leaving just 8 that are still on the bubble. Of those, 6 are currently ahead of the curve with 7–6 records (meaning they must only win one of their remaining matches to reach kachi-koshi) while only 2 have their backs against the wall at 6–7 and must win BOTH of their remaining matches to avoid make-koshi [majority of losses].

That SEEMS pretty even, but it’s strange how this breaks down into “performance bands.” Nearly ALL of the sanyaku rikishi are kachi-koshi, with only ONE (sekiwake Kotoshogiku) already being make-koshi. It’s just the two komusubi who are still undecided, and both Mitakeumi and Yoshikaze start today at 7–6. In the M1–M5 ranks, EVERYONE is make-koshi except for Shodai who is kachi-koshi. Most of the middle Maegashira, M6–M10, are kachi-koshi with just three of them being make-koshi, and just Ichinojo still on the bubble. When it gets down to the M11–M16, half of them are still on the bubble, but four of the remaining six are make-koshi, and only two are kachi-koshi. 

Mostly all this tells us that there will be a BIG shake-up all over the banzuke in July . . . EXCEPT for the very top, where the sanyaku ranks are going to remain pretty stable (notwithstanding Takayasu’s almost certain promotion to ozeki).

M9 Ichinojo (7–6) vs. M13 Daishomaru (8–5)—Ichinojo is one of those rikishi on the bubble. A win today or tomorrow and he’ll be up for promotion next basho. (1:10)

M11 Ishiura (6–7) vs. M4 Takarafuji (3–10)—Ishiura is also on the bubble, but in a more dangerous way. He must win BOTH today’s match and tomorrow’s in order to eke out a kachi-koshi 8–7 record. Today, he’s fighting Takarafuji, who is ranked significantly higher, but has been having a TERRIBLE tournament.  (4:10)

komusubi Mitakeumi (7–6) vs. M6 Ikioi (9–4)—Also on the bubble is Mitakeumi, but that’s often the case with a komusubi. Their Week 1 schedules are so tough that they’re sometimes lucky to even have a mathematical chance at kachi-koshi. Mitakeumi only needs one more win to get his, which is a good thing because today he’s facing Ikioi who is having a strong tournament and looking to get double-digit wins and perhaps qualify for a special prize. (7:30)

M4 Tochiozan (5–8) vs. komusubi Yoshikaze (7–6)—Yoshikaze is the other komusubi this basho, and he’s in the same situation as Mitakeumi . . . except that his opponent today has NOT been having a terrific tournament. In fact, Tochiozan has struggled and is already make-koshi. (8:05)

M5 Shodai (8–5) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (11–2)—Takayasu seems to have locked up his ozeki promotion, but he still wants to make as strong an impression on the Promotion Council as possible. A win here would keep him at least tied for second place, and give him yokozuna-like numbers for this basho. (10:15)

yokozuna Harumafuji (11–2) vs. ozeki Geoido (8–5)—The question is still out on whether or not Harumafuji’s toe is injured. He lost so quickly yesterday that no one got to see whether the injury actually played a part. Goeido, on the other hand, got his kachi-koshi and now wants to put two extra notches in the win column so it LOOKS like he had a strong tournament. (12:25)

ozeki Terunofuji (11–2) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (13–0)—This is the marquee match of the day, and perhaps the decisive one for the basho. If Hakuho wins, his lead will be unassailable and he’ll have secured his 38th yusho [tournament championship]. Unfortunately, the ozeki reinjured his knee the other day and seemed to be hobbling during his match yesterday. If Terunofuji somehow manages to pull off an upset, then he and any other two-loss rikishi will still be mathematically in the hunt and dependant upon Harumafuji to likewise win on Sunday to force a playoff. (10:50)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2017 (Day 13)

It’s Friday, the 13th day of the Natsu Basho. (The second Friday is ALWAYS the 13th day of a tournament . . . that’s just how things pan out.) Yokozuna Hakuho remains alone atop the leaderboard, still with a perfect 12–0 record. Directly behind him is yokozuna Harumafuji, who got a walk-over win yesterday when his opponent—M5 Takanoiwa—went kyujo [absent for injury] thanks to a thigh injury he suffered on Day 10.

Hakuho looked sharp in his win, pulling another variation of the neko damashi [deceiving cat] “trick.” At the tachi-ai, rather than push, thrust, or slap, the yokozuna’s first move was to reach out and place his palm on his opponent’s forehead. Leaving aside how incredibly FAST he has to be in order to successfully pull of such a maneuver, the result is for the opponent to blink with confusion, leaving him open to whatever move Hakuho wants to make next. In this case, it was a vicious shoulder slam to the chin, that just about ended the bout before it even began.

Announcers (in English and Japanese) expressed confusion bordering on disbelief as to why Hakuho would do that—it’s such an unusual gambit that it doesn’t even have a name, just a cute, derogatory nickname. This shows one of the most common holes in sumo punditry, the lack of discussion of the details of past encounters between the two rikishi. If the commentators had any skills in that regard, they’d certainly remember that Hakuho did pretty much exactly the same thing in two tournaments in a row (Aki Basho and Kyushu Basho 2015) . . . BOTH times when facing Tochiozan! For some reason, Hakuho seems to like taunting him by showing how much faster he is at the initial charge. And for some inexplicable reason, this memory doesn’t stick in the sumo announcers’ memories.

Goeido got his seventh win yesterday against Aoiyama, and thanks to Kisenosato being kyujo, today he has ANOTHER match against a Maegashira rikishi (and another struggling one at that). If the ozeki can beat 3–9 M4 Takarafuji, he will get his kachi-koshi and stave off the fifth kadoban [threat of ozeki demotion] in the past two years. Overall, he has to consider himself lucky. If both yokozuna—Kakuryu and Kisenosato—were still in the competition, he’d have had to beat sanyaku rikishi in order to save his skin. Instead, he gets extra matches against weak opponents. If you get the feeling that I don’t like Goeido, you’re only partially right. I actually think he’s a tough, gutsy rikishi. But I also think he’s proven himself weak and undeserving as an ozeki. Since being promoted in 2014, he’s only had TWO tournaments where he notched double-digit wins, which is supposed to be an AVERAGE (more like, “barely acceptable”) record for an ozeki. Add to that the fact that he’s been kadoban five times during that span (which means that he had five basho with make-koshi [majority of losses]), and it all adds up to someone who is a very poor representative of the “champion” ranking. I think he’d be a GREAT sekiwake and, indeed, he WAS for two full years before stringing three excellent performances together and getting promoted. Anyway, if he can notch an eighth win today against struggling Takarafuji, he’ll save his rank again. But I bet we’ll see him kadoban again before this time next year, probably sometime before the end of THIS year.

On the other end of the spectrum, sekiwake Takayasu notched his tenth win yesterday, giving him the minimum necessary to be considered for ozeki promotion himself. Despite the fact that the bar is so high (33 wins over the course of three consecutive basho), promotion is not automatic. But I don’t think there’s any way that the Kyokai [Sumo Association] will deny him the promotion. First of all, he’s performed excellently for more the past year, with double-digit wins in five out of six tournaments . . . decidedly better than three actual ozeki—Goeido, Kotoshogiku, and Terunofuji (who, admittedly, was recovering from a major injury)—did during that same period. What’s more, he seems to be getting STRONGER as his stablemate (and therefore practice partner) Kisenosato rises to the pinnacle of the sumo world. Secondly, as Goeido continues to struggle, and Terunofuji seems to be taking on the role of a “bad boy,” they don’t have a clean-cut, all-Japanese ozeki for people to root for. (This ignores, of course, that Takayasu is half-Filipino.) No, I think that Takayasu’s promotion is in the bag . . . but he’ll certainly WANT to tack on another couple of wins to make it even more certain. Today he’s facing yokozuna Harumafuji, which would be a fine feather in his cap, though it could also give Hakuho near certainty of the yusho [tournament championship].

Finally, a tip of the cap to sekiwake Kotoshogiku, who could hold out no longer and got his make-koshi eighth loss yesterday. He’s for certain dropping out of the sekiwake rank, and possibly out of sanyaku altogether (though he may be saved from that embarrassment by the incredibly lackluster performance of nearly ALL the rikishi at the top of the Maegashira ranks). The open question is, at the age of 33, with very little chance of earning a second ozeki promotion, how long will he go on fighting as a rank-and-file rikishi? Is his desire to compete strong enough to keep in the mix despite the incredible loss of stature? Most former ozeki in his position would retire while still NEAR the rank for which they were famous . . . but there’s no rule or even tradition that demands he do so. For sure, back in the 90s, Konishiki remained a Maegashira rikishi for several years after failing to defend his kadoban status. But the reason for that was that he was waiting for his Japanese citizenship to come through so that he could retire and become an oyakata [elder] in the Sumo Association. In any case, Kotoshogiku may not have been a great ozeki, but he held onto the rank for nearly six years, and was involved in some of the sport’s greatest rivalries. So I tip my cap to him, whatever decision he makes about his career once this basho is done.

M9 Ichinojo (6–6) vs. M12 Tokushoryu (7–5)—Much as it confuses me to say it, I like the way Ichinojo has been fighting these last few days. He’s got some life in him, and he seems to be putting some thought into what he’s doing. I guess that as far down as he is on the banzuke, he really wants to avoid make-koshi if he can. That’s IF he can. (2:00)

M10 Tochinoshin (9–3) vs. M5 Shodai (8–4)—After a slow start, Tochinoshin (who is one of my favorite rikishi) has managed to put together a very strong performance. He’s gotten his kachi-koshi and now is trying to hit double-digit wins and perhaps qualify for a special prize. (6:45)

M4 Takarafuji (3–9) vs. ozeki Goeido (7–5)—This is the match for Goeido. If he doesn’t win today, he’ll somehow have to get one agains Harumafuji or Tamawashi, both of whom are fighting much better than he is. And even if he DOES win today (which, let’s admit, he really SHOULD), in his heart he’ll know that he dodged another bullet. (10:40)

yokozuna Harumafuji (11–1) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (10–2)—This is the marquee match of the day. If Harumafuji wins then he’ll keep the pressure on Hakuho going into the final weekend. If he loses, then there’s a chance for Hakuho to open up a two win lead with only two days remaining. On the other hand, a win for Takayasu would put a real exclamation point on the case for his ozeki promotion.  (12:10)

sekiwake Tamawashi (9–3) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (12–0)—After yestereday’s tachi-ai shennanigans, will we get the serious Hakuho back today? He controls his own destiny. If he keeps winning and finishes zensho [perfect record] then the yusho will be his for sure. And depending on how Harumafuji does in the match before him, a win today might even guarantee Hakuho at least a tie for the championship. Tamawashi, on the other hand, has been fighting very well and is starting to make a case for an ozeki promotion toward the end of the year. In order to do that, he’ll need to get ten or eleven wins . . . and it would be a feather in his cap if one of them was taken from undefeated Hakuho. (13:25)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2017 (Day 12)

Day 12 of the Natsu Basho sees another interesting shift in the leaderboard. Yokozuna Harumafuji’s inadvertent step in his match against komusubi Mitakeumi yesterday means that now yokozuna Hakuho is the only rikishi with a 12–0 record, and sits alone in the lead for the yusho [tournament championship] race. Harumafuji is now one win behind at 11–1, and a group of rikishi lurk in the shadows with 10–2 records and desperate hopes for the leader to stumble.

Harumafuji gets a stroke of luck today. Scheduled for what already seemed like a relatively easy match against Takanoiwa (5–6), things got even easier when the M5 rikishi announced he was going kyujo [withdrawal due to injury] thanks to an ankle twist he suffered yesterday. So the yokozuna gets a freebie win and an extra day for his stubbed toe to heal.

Today ozeki Goeido gets what should have been his final non-sanyaku opponent, but yokozuna Kisenosato’s withdrawal probably means he’ll get one more. This in turn means that it’s possible for Goeido to stave off his kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] status ONLY by beating Maegashira opponents, and not needing to beat one of the upper-rankers. Lucky, indeed. Of course, M3 Aoiyama is no shrinking violet, so the ozeki had better stay focused.

For the last three days, Kotoshogiku has managed to stave off his make-koshi [majority of losses] (which would cause him to drop from his current sekiwake ranking . . . perhaps out of sanyaku entirely), but today he’s facing a significant challenge in komusubi Mitakeumi, who himself is fighting to reach kachi-koshi [majority of wins]. More interesting still, IF Kotoshogiku goes make-koshi AND Mitakeumi goes kachi-koshi, chances are very good that they’ll switch spots on the banzuke [ranking sheet] . . . and don’t think they don’t both KNOW that, which makes this match extremely PERSONAL for both rikishi.

M11 Ishiura (5–6) vs. M6 Ikioi (8–3)—Neither of these rikishi have looked especially sharp this basho, but Ikioi has managed to secure his kachi-koshi, and Ishiura still has a chance to IF he can win three of his remaining four bouts, starting today.  (4:50)

M4 Takarafuji (3–8) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (9–2)—This is a big day for Takayasu. A day he’s been building toward for nearly a full year. If he wins today, he’ll get his 10th win of this basho . . . and his 33rd win over the past three which, as it turns out, is the minimum requirement for being promoted to ozeki. He’s been fighting amazingly well, and his opponent today really hasn’t. (I quipped the other day that Takarafuji looked like he was having trouble SEEING his opponent, let alone fighting him. (7:10)

sekiwake Kotoshogiku (4–7) vs. komusubi Mitakeumi (5–6)—It’s been nice watching Kotoshogiku gamely defend his chance to hold onto his sekiwake ranking, but it seems highly unlikely that he’ll succeed. As I talked about above, Mitakeumi is also highly motivated to take this match . . . and he’s been fighting much better than Kotoshogiku has. (8:20)

ozeki Terunofuji (9–2) vs. M5 Shodai (8–3)—Two big, powerful rikishi performing big, powerful sumo. What’s not to like? (8:55)

M3 Aoiyama (2–9) vs. ozeki Goeido (6–5)—As I discussed above, Goeido really NEEDS this win. Aoiyama, on the other hand, is just trying to lessen the embarrassment he’s already suffered this basho. In such cases, I always give the edge to the man who has something to fight FOR (as opposed to fighting AGAINST something). (9:45)

M4 Tochiozan (5–6) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (11–0)—Harumafuji got a free win today, so Hakuho must win this match in order to maintain sole possession of the tournament lead. He’s faced Tochiozan 36 times in the past, and only lost twice. The odds aren’t good for this being number three. (10:30)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2017 (Day 11)

We’re two-thirds of the way through the Natsu Basho, and Day 11 dawns with two rikishi still atop the leaderboard. Yokozuna Hakuho and yokozuna Harumafuji have perfect 10–0 records and continue to look as strong as ever. However, with Takayasu’s loss yesterday, there is now a two-win cushion between them and their five nearest competitors. Scrambling gamely behind with 8–2 records are sekiwake Takayasu, ozeki Terunofuji, M5 Shodai, M10 Tochinoshin, and M10 Ura.

After putting up a mighty and brave performance with his badly injured left arm, yokozuna Kisenosato’s loss yesterday to struggling sekiwake Kotoshogiku dropped him the 7–3 and out of any real hope for being involved in the yusho [tournament championship] hunt. As it turns out, that was the last straw for Kisenosato, who has withdrawn from the tournament citing his ailing chest/shoulder injury as the reason. I’m actually GLAD he did this. It will give him a few extra days to rest (and a few fewer chances to inadvertently exacerbate the injury). 

Takayasu suffered his second loss yesterday against Hakuho, but that really was to be predicted. It’s important, though, that he not dwell on it as he still needs two more wins to reach double digits and secure a promotion to ozeki. Today he faces M4 Tochiozan, and the sekiwake had better bring his A-game. A slip up here could be disasterous his promotion.

One of the things I’m noticing is how badly the upper Maegashira rikishi are doing this basho. After only ten fights, five of the six M1–M3 rikishi already have make-koshi [majority of losses] and the sixth is only one loss away from that dubious record. Chiyonokuni, Chiyoshoma, Daieisho, and Aoiyama all are 2–8, Okinoumi is 1–9, and only Endo still holds out hope at 3–7 (though he seemed like he might have re-injured his left knee in his to Tamawashi yesterday). That’s good news to the two komusubi, Mitakeumi and Yoshikaze, who will spend most of the remaining days facing these rikishi after being smacked around by the ozeki and yokozuna in Week 1. Mitakeumi is currently 4–6 while Yoshikaze is 5–5, meaning that they need 4 and 3 wins respectively to salvage kachi-koshi and hold onto their sanyaku ranks. Given how poorly the Maegashira are fighting, that seems eminently achievable IF they remain focused and do the same kind of strong, gutsy sumo they did while losing to Hakuho, Kisenosato, and the others. Unfortunately for Mitakeumi, he has one more big challenge to face as he squares off against Harumafuji today.

M9 Ichinojo (4–6) vs, M15 Miyogiryu (3–7)—As their records show, neither of these rikishi are doing well this basho. And as longtime readers of these sumo reports will know, I rarely have anything good to say about Ichinojo. But the fact of the matter is that they do deserve to be numbered among the best sumotori in the game. Here, they show it. (2:50)

M10 Ura (8–2) vs. M5 Shodai (8–2)—Both of this rikishi have secured their kachi-koshi. Now it’s safe for them to take some chances and try to rack up extra wins and impressive maneuvers in hopes of getting a special prize at the end of the tournament (not to mention increase the size of the the boost they’ll get on the banzuke [ranking sheet] for NEXT tournament). (6:45)

M1 Endo (3–7) vs. komusubi Yoshikaze (5–5)—In my daily update above, I talked a bit about the importance of this match. Apparently, the two rikishi were paying attention, because it turns out to also be one of the guttiest, hard fought, exciting bouts of the entire basho. (9:55)

M4 Tochiozan (5–5) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (8–2)—Takayasu needs two more wins to fulfill the requirements for an ozeki promotion. He put up a good fight against Hakuho yesterday, but the yokozuna won. Can the sekiwake get back on track against his longtime rival Tochiozan? (11:10)

ozeki Goeido (6–4) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (10–0)—If you wonder why I’ve been saying that Goeido needs to hurry up and secure his kachi-koshi, or that his upcoming schedule is so tough, bear in mind that it’s still only Wednesday and already he’s facing a yokozuna. Most of his remaining matches will be of this caliber, and he’s somehow got to find a way to win at least TWO of them. Meanwhile, Hakuho is trying to maintain his perfect record and his slice of the lead in the yusho race. (13:10)

yokozuna Harumafuji (10–0) vs. komusubi Mitakeumi (4–6)—Harumafuji is also trying to stay atop the leaderboard, and to show that his stubbed toe from Day 8 isn’t bothering him. On the other hand, Mitakeumi hopes to win four of his final five matches and keep his sanyaku ranking for another tournament. These two both perform scrappy, high-speed sumo, and although they’ve only fought four times previously, Mitakeumi has managed to win one of them. (13:50)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2017 (Day 10)

As we begin Day 10 of the Natsu Basho, nothing has changed at the top of the leaderboard. The two yokozuna, Hakuho and Harumafuji, still lead with perfect 9–0 records, and sekiwake Takayasu is still the lone competitor just a single loss behind. But there were a handful of notable changes to the yusho [tournament championship] hunt based on yesterday’s results.

First of all, the number of rikishi tied for third place with 7–2 records has dropped to just four—ozeki Terunofuji, M5 Shodai, M10 Tochinoshin, and M10 Ura. The biggest name to drop off the trail is yokozuna Kisenosato who was surprised by a very aggressive M4 Tochiozan and driven off the dohyo before he could even formulate a response. Truthfully, I find it a bit of a relief that Kisenosato has registered his third loss. Despite the math, he was really in no shape to actually contend for the yusho. Now he can say that he’s given it his all and come up a bit short . . . and be a little more careful with his injured shoulder for the remaining days of the basho. (I’d be even happier if he went kyujo [absent because of injury] and just sat out the next six days, but there’s not much chance he’ll do that unless he truly injures himself.

Another important occurrence yesterday came in the final match of the day. Harumafuji beat sekiwake Tamawashi (who has been a thorn in the yokozuna’s side in recent tournaments), but in doing so he stubbed his toe badly enough to have Harumafuji limping off the dohyo at the bout’s end. This is basically the same type of injury that has nagged Hakuho for the past half-year. The big toe is surprisingly important in sumo, being integral in the tachi-ai [initial charge] and any time two rikishi perform face-to-face power sumo or when a rikishi tries to muscle his opponent over the tawara [rice bale] at the edge of the dohyo. We won’t have any clue how bad the toe is until Harumafuji enters the stadium for his match . . . then there will be all kinds of speculating about his stride, the bounce in his step, the speed of his gate. If Harumafuji’s toe has a pain that’s going to linger, it will give a distinct advantage to Hakuho in the yusho race.

Speaking of Hakuho, he may have a perfect record through Day 9, but he hasn’t looked like the same dominant yokozuna he was in years past. In fact there have been several matches, including yesterday’s against M3 Aoiyama, when despite winning, Hakuho wound up sprawled out on the dohyo when the all was said and done. That says that although he’s winning, he isn’t putting himself in the position he WANTS to and has to struggle to find a winning maneuver, even if it is a little wearing on his own body, too. In addition, today Hakuho faces his first really BIG challenge, squaring off against Takayasu. If the yokozuna wins, he creates a one win cushion between himself—and potentially Harumafuji—and the rest of the pack, making it even more likely that one of them will win the tournament. 

On a positive note, sekiwake Kotoshogiku managed to stave off his make-koshi [majority of losses] for at least one more day by beating M1 Endo in rather convincing fashion. The chances of Kotoshogiku finishing the tournament with another six wins in a row (which is what he needs to reach eight wins) are extremely low. But all he needs to worry about is one match at a time. If he wins today, there’s still hope . . . that’s all he should be concentrating on.

A current ozeki who is starting to struggle a little is Goeido, who lost his second straight match yesterday. Of course his opponent, ozeki Terunofuji, always presents a massive challenge (pun intended), but if Goeido (who is kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion]) wants to hold onto his rank, he now MUST win three of his remaining six matches, three of which will be against yokozuna, and one of which will be against sekiwake Tamawashi. If he wants to keep his chances high, he’d better bring his A-game against M2 Chiyoshoma today.

M16 Yutakayama (1–8) vs. M11 Ishiura (5–4)—There’s been so much going on this basho that I haven’t squeezed in time to check on the the smallest of the Makuuchi wrestlers, one of my favorite rikishi, Ishiura. He’s having a decent enough tournament so far, only needing to win half of his remaining matches to secure kachi-koshi. Today he’s facing Yutakayama, a rooking in the upper division who’s already make-koshi and so will be going back down to Juryo in July. But he wants to rack up as many wins as possible before he goes. (1:30)

M15 Kaisei (6–3) vs. M10 Ura (7–2)—Another couple of rikishi I haven’t had any real opportunity to feature so far this basho. Kaisei looked terrible the first few days, but managed to turn it around at the end of Week 1. Ura, on the other hand, is still speedy and still fights like an undersized rikishi, but he’s been making the most of the 20kg he gained since the March tournament and is only one win away from kachi-koshi. (3:40)

M8 Sokokurai (3–6) vs. M5 Shodai (7–2)—Sometimes the best match of the day is fought by two mid-level rikishi struggling just to get their kachi-koshi. This may not be the best sumo of Day 10 . . . but it’s certainly close. (6:40)

M2 Chiyoshoma (2–7) vs. ozeki Goeido (5–4)—Goeido needs three wins to reach kachi-koshi and stave off his kadoban status . . . and today is one of only TWO non-sanyaku opponents he’s going to face for the remainder of the basho. Really, he’d BETTER win this fight or he’s in real trouble. Chiyoshoma, on the other hand NEEDS this win or he’ll be make-koshi and looking at a demotion in July. (11:00)

yokozuna Harumafuji (9–0) vs. M4 Tochiozan (5–4)—This is our chance to see how badly Harumafuji stubbed his toe yesterday. Tochiozan is an opponent that he usually dominates, so if he has any particular trouble doing so here it very likely is a sign that the yokozuna’s foot is going to be a big factor in the final five days of the tournament. (11:30)

yokozuna Kisenosato (6–3) vs. sekiwake Kotoshogiku (2–7)—Kisenosato’s injured left shoulder is now more than just a distraction, it’s a disadvantage. His loss to Tochiozan yesterday showed that he’s vulnerable when facing someone strong enough to apply significant pressure. Kotoshogiku is hanging onto his sekiwake rank by his fingernails, but he’s shown that he still has a tiny bit of his ozeki power still in reserve. Can he summon enough of it to give Kisenosato a second loss in a row? (11:55)

sekiwake Takayasu (8–1) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (9–0)—The marquee match of the day is the last match of the day. If Takayasu can find a way to beat Hakuho (something he’s only done twice in his whole career), it will open the yusho race up and give all the two-loss rikishi a glimmer of hope. If Hakuho maintains his streak and continues his domination of Takayasu, he’ll create a two-loss cushion between himself (and Harumafuji, if he wins his match) and their closest competitors. (12:30)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2017 (Day 9)

Day 9 of the Natsu Basho, and we enter the final week. The undefeated leaders remain yokozuna Harumafuji and yokozuna Hakuho, both of whom looked very strong on Sunday. One win behind them is ozek– . . . I mean sekiwake Takayasu, who only needs three more wins to all but insure his promotion. Next is a gaggle of rikishi with two losses—nine to be precise—chief among the yokozuna Kisenosato, ozeki Terunofuji, and sekiwake Tamawashi.

I was impressed with how Kisenosato handled Aoiyama, one of the few rikishi who outweigh him. In order to get the win yesterday, the yokozuna had to apply SOME pressure from the left side, and he managed it without even a pained grimace. It still seems unlikely that he’ll contend for the yusho [tournament championship], but he should be a deciding factor in who DOES end up triumphant. 

Terunofuji seems to be getting into a good rhythm at the right time. He’s back to feeling confident and using his size and power to win convincingly against tough foes, in yesterday’s case M1 Endo. He doesn’t have to fight Harumafuji (because they both come from the same stable), so his fight against Hakuho later in the week could end up being a deciding factor in the championship race.

Goeido’s loss to Yoshikaze leaves the ozeki very little room for error from here on out. He must win at least three of his seven remaining matches . . . but he’s about to start facing the toughest competition. For example, today he squares off against fellow ozeki Terunofuji, and after that he has four more matches to go against sanyaku-ranked opponents. That leaves him only two Maegashira-ranked opponents to face. Lucky for him, NONE of the M1-M4 rikishi are doing better than 50/50 (and only Tochiozan is doing that well). So if Goeido can win BOTH of those matches, he only needs to get a SINGLE win against a sanyaku opponent. 

komusubi Mitakeumi (3–5) vs. komusubi Endo (4–4)—Komusubi is a very tough position, particularly during Week 1 of a basho. Rikishi ranked here really are generally considered to be doing well if they can enter Week 2 with three wins, and by that measure BOTH of these guys are having a pretty good tournament. Of course, the key to rounding that out is to be dominant in Week 2 . . . and one of them is going to start off this segment with a loss today. But it should be a scrappy match for us to enjoy! (8:50)

M1 Chiyonokuni (2–6) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (7–1)—Takayasu can secure his kachi-koshi [majority of wins] if he can beat the feisty Chiyonokuni today. Of course, if he does that, he’ll ALSO lower his ozeki “magic number” to 2. (9:30)

sekiwake Kotoshogiku (1–7) vs. M1 Endo (3–5)—These two are both having tough tournaments . . . but ESPECIALLY Kotoshogiku. His back is against the wall, and if he loses even one more match he’ll be make-koshi [majority of losses] and be demoted from sekiwake (and quite probably out of sanyaku altogether). He’s got to dig in and summon what remains of his old “ozeki pride” and salvage as good a record as he can manage. Meanwhile, Endo is in only slightly better position. He can make kachi-koshi IF he wins five of his remaining seven matches. (10:05)

ozeki Terunofuji (6–2) vs. ozeki Goeido (5–3) —This is the only ozeki vs. ozeki match of the tournament (so strange after years with four ozeki scrabbling for top honors). Terunofuji is still on the outside edge of the yusho [tournament championship] race, but another loss will dash those hopes. On the other hand, Goeido is kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] and still needs three more wins to achieve kachi-koshi. (11:00)

yokozuna Kisenosato (6–2) vs. M4 Tochiozan (4–4)—Kisenosato continues to impress, with his win over Aoiyama yesterday, but he’s got nothing but challenges left on his schedule. Today it’s Tochiozan, who is having a mediocre basho, but has a good all-time record against Kisenosato, having beaten the yokozuna 14 times in their thirty-nine previous meetings. If Kisenosato were healthy, I’d say this was his match, no sweat. But given the current situation, I’m just not that confident. (I’d still pick Kisenosato, if I had to bet . . . but I’d be nervous about the wager.) (11:40)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2017 Nakabi [The Middle Day] (Day 8)

Welcome to Day 8, nakabi [the middle day] of the 2017 Natsu Basho. After a wild start with a bunch of fresh faces in the mix, the midway leaders are very familiar. Only two unbeaten rikishi remain—yokozuna Harumafuji and yokozuna Hakuho—with only sekiwake Takayasu trailing with just a single loss. Nine rikishi are in the next tier with 5–2 records, hoping that Week 2 will present challenges to the leaders, and that they can hold on long enough to take advantage of that. 

Kisenosato certainly showed us that he is filled with yokozuna-quality fighting spirit yesterday as he staved off attacks from komusubi Mitakeumi, keeping control of the match the whole time. Eventually, Mitakeumi tired and Kisenosato was able to maneuver him out of the ring. 

Hakuho and Harumafuji, despite being the “been around forever” yokozuna, have been putting on a virtual clinic in how to calmly, quietly, without any great fanfare simply go on winning every day. They are the essence of what it means to be a grand champion in that they have the answer for everything their opponents throw at them, and they never seem to be flustered, no matter how the matches go. Of course, all that begins to change in Week 2. I don’t think either yokozuna is in form to make a serious run at a zensho yusho [perfect record tournament championship], and that means that the basho will get even MORE interesting once they slip and lose a match.

Takayasu bounced back nicely from his Day 5 loss, and absolutely crushed M2 Chiyoshoma, flipping him across the ring like this was a Cirque du Soleil show. He now needs only four more wins to secure a promotion to ozeki. Today, though, he’s got a tricky opponent in “giant killer” Yoshikaze.

Kotoshogiku’s loss to Goeido yesterday really marks the end of any hope the sekiwake had of hanging around and acting like an ozeki-junior-grade. With Goeido kadoban [in danger of ozeki demotion] this was the time that Kotoshogiku had to step up and show that he still had the goods to fight at that level, and to help pull Goeido down to his level. But Goeido clearly had the advantage all the way through that match, and in the end unceremoniously rolled Kotoshogiku off the dohyo. Goeido is still in a semi-precarious position with a 5–2 record and having to start facing fellow ozeki and yokozuna soon, but one thing is for sure—yesterday he proved that he’s still got what it takes to be an ozeki.

M7 Hokutofuji (5–2) vs. M4 Takarafuji (3–4)—Here’s something you don’t see every day, two rikishi whose shikona [fighting name] ends in “-fuji” fighting one another. That’s because Isegehama Heya rikishi have a tradition of taking “-fuji” shikona—Harumafuji, Terunofuji, Takarafuji—and stablemates don’t have to fight one another in hon-basho [grand tournaments] unless they finish tied for yusho, in which case they can fight in a playoff. But Hokutofuji is from Hakkaku Heya, and took the “-fuji” shikona for his own personal reasons. (6:45)

Komusubi Yoshikaze (4–3) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (6–1)—Takayasu is marching steadily toward the ten wins he needs to qualify for promotion to ozeki, and only fellow sekiwake Tamawashi has been able to put up much of a fight so far. However, a komusubi who finishes Week 1 4–3 is a dangerous opponent, and Yoshikaze’s four wins have come over two yokozuna, an ozeki, and a sekiwake. He’s certainly got the skills to give Takayasu a run for his money, and even to score an upset. (9:15)

M1 Endo (2–5) vs. ozeki Goeido (5–2)—At first blush this might not seem like a marquee match-up for any reason other than the fans love Endo. However, look closer and you’ll see that Endo’s two wins were both kinboshi [gold star award] wins over yokozuna, and that he’s been pushing all of his high-rank opponents to near the limits of their skills. Meanwhile, Goeido has waffled between looking sharp (as he did yesterday against Kotoshogiku) and looking like the same plodding goofball whose weak performances landed him in kadoban status again this basho. (10:50)

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (1–6) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (8–0)—Given how these two are performing, this bout really isn’t particularly from a quality sumo perspective. But this is the 56th time these two have gone head-to-head, which at one meeting per tournament and six tourneys per year, means their rivalry goes back nine years. And in that time Hakuho has completely dominated Kotoshogiku, leading their series 50–5. That means Kisenosato beats Hakuho about once every two years. Who knows. Maybe today IS that day. (11:40)

Yokozuna Kisenosato (5–2) vs. M3 Aoiyama (2–5)—Kisenosato showed yesterday that he can keep the defensive sumo going, even against a dangerous opponent like Mitakeumi. The yokosuna used his size and ring sense maneuver the komusubi out of the ring. Today, however, Kisenosato no longer has a size advantage as he faces Aoiyama. It seems likely that he’ll need to make SOME kind of offensive push to get the Bulgarian man-mountain moving in the right direction, but the question remains whether the yokozuna’s injured left arm has enough power to make that happen.  (13:30)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2017 (Day 7)

We’ve reached the middle weekend of the 2017 Natsu Basho [Summer Grand Tournament], and a clear leaderboard has coallesced. At the very top, still undefeated we have a very familiar pair—yokozuna Harumafuji and yokozuna Hakuho. Trailing with only one loss are sekiwake Takayasu and two rank-and-file rikiishi—M13 Daishomaru and M14 Onosho, who is fighting in the Makuuchi division for the very first time. (What a story it would be if he took the yusho [tournament championship] in his rookie basho!) A dozen rikishi are hanging in there with 4–2 records, including yokozuna Kisenosato, ozeki Terunofuji, ozeki Goeido, and sekiwake Tamawashi . . . but they’ll need a bit of luck to get back into contention.

Still, it’s the middle weekend and big matches are on the schedule.

When it comes to pure melodrama, the biggest pairing of the day almost certainly has to be sekiwake Kotoshogiku going against ozeki Goeido. Both rikishi came into the basho with their eyes squarely set on the basic goal of reaching kachi-koshi [majority of wins]. For Kotoshogiku, it is because he wants to prove that he still deserves to be counted among the sumo elite despite the fact that he failed to regain his ozeki rank in March. As long as he can keep making kachi-koshi, he’ll stay in sumo’s third-highest rank, but once he starts to slip he’ll drop away back into the mix of Maegashira rikishi. Goeido, on the other hand, is kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] again this basho (for the fifth time in the past two years). If he fails to reach 8 wins, he’ll be in the same position Kotoshogiku was in March . . . with the same dangers waiting to pull him down. So both rikishi want to finish Week 1 as strongly as possible, and each sees reflections of his own troubles in his opponent’s situation. Great drama often leads to great sumo.

Another big match today pits Harumafuji against Yoshikaze. These two scrappers always seem to have exciting, hard-fought matches, particularly when there’s something more than just honor on the line. In this case, Harumafuji wants to hold on to his share of the lead, and Yoshikaze (who’s 4–2 so far) wants to stay in the hunt at all. I don’t know that this will be a particularly long match, but I do expect it to be explosive and unpredictable.

Finally for today we have Kisenosato squaring off with Mitakeumi. Kisenosato has shown so much fighting spirit with his performance so far in the tournament I find myself hoping that he can find a way to win the whole thing. However, with his shoulder in the shape it is, he can’t manage to produce much offense at all. He’s spent most of the first week winning by out maneuvering his opponents and waiting for them to put themselves into unrecoverable positions. That won’t wash against his Week 2 opponents. Meanwhile, Mitakeumi has to learn how to best the top-rankers. This match will give him a chance to go full-out on offense and see if he can perform at the level necessary to overcome such skilled opponents.

M2 Chiyoshoma (1–5) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (5–1)—On paper, this doesn’t look like much of a match. Chiyoshoma isn’t having a terrific tournament, and until yesterday Takayasu had a perfect record. But it’s HOW the sekiwake lost yesterday that makes this a match worth noting. After absolutely annihilating his competition on days 1–5, he was completely blown off the dohyo by Tamawashi on Day 6. Was it a momentary slip of concentration? Is there some injury he’s hiding? Will he be able to bounce back to dominance again, or has the spell been broken? This match should answer at least some of those questions. (8:41)

Sekiwake Tamawashi (4–2) vs. M1 Chiyonokuni (1–5)—These two have both fought very hard in Week 1, but have been facing top-level opponents (such is the fate of those ranked near the top of the banzuke), so their records don’t reflect the quality of sumo they’ve been showing us. Week 2 should allow them to rack up a good number of wins if they stay focused, but today they have to face each other. Chiyonokuni needs the win more, having only gotten one so far, but if Tamawashi is going to begin a push for ozeki promotion, he needs it nearly as badly. (9:15)

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (1–5) vs. ozeki Goeido (4–2)—This match is pretty much all about Kotoshogiku wanting to prove that he’s still an ozeki quality rikishi, and that with a few bad breaks Goeido and his roles could have been reversed. For Goeido it’s about proving that this is ridiculous—he’s clearly an ozeki, and Kotoshogiku no longer has what it takes to fulfill that role. Also, Kotoshogiku really NEEDS to start racking up some wins or he’ll have a tough time hanging onto even his sekiwake rank! (9:50)

Yokozuna Kisenosato (4–2) vs. komusubi Mitakeumi (3–3)—Today we’ll see the first real test of how Kisenosato can handle an opponent who knows how to win at the top level. True, Mitakeumi is still an up-and-coming rikishi, but he’s proven that he can handle himself (having already collected two kinboshi [gold star award for a Maegashira rikishi beating a yokozuna] in his short career. Kisenosato has never lost to Mitakeumi in the past, but we’ll see if he can keep that streak alive despite his injuries. (11:25)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2017 (Day 6)

It’s Day 6 of the Natsu Basho and things are starting to heat up. (Appropriate for the Summer Tournament, eh?) Yokozuna Harumafuji, yokozuna Hakuho, sekiwake Takayasu remain unbeaten. Also looking strong are ozeki Terunofuji, ozeki Goeido, sekiwake Tamawashi, and komusubi Mitakeumi.

The action today is all about setting the rikishi up for a high-pressure weekend that will roll straight into Week 2. An extra win here in Week 1 can mean the difference between being in the hunt for the yusho [tournament championship] . . . or the difference between kachi-koshi [majority of wins] and make-koshi [majority of losses]. For many of the high-ranking rikishi, this will be the last “easy” match they get . . . while for the komusubi, M1, and M2 level it means just the opposite—their competition will get less stiff as Week 2 progresses.

Basically, Day 6 is not a day when portentous things happen . . . it’s a day when great portents begin to snap into focus.

Sekiwake Tamawashi (3–2) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (5–0)—Takayasu is now halfway to his goal of double-digit wins, and he’s looking incredibly strong. It would be quite an achievement if he managed to secure an ozeki promotion with ten wins in a row . . . but that’s a really tall order. With the middle weekend coming up, the schedulers are sure to give him some top-level competition to drive TV ratings for the broadcast. At this point, Takayasu only needs to win half of his remaining bouts, so he really just needs to take it day by day. Today he faces fellow sekiwake Tamawashi, so he’d do well to stay focused and simply get his job done. (8:16)

Ozeki Terunofuji (3–2) vs. M1 Chiyonokuni (1–4)—After a slow start, Terunofuji has regained his focus and begun to look like the same dominating rikishi he was in March. Yesterday he gave Kotoshogiku the stand-up fight the he SHOULD have let him get last basho, and even though in my heart I wanted to former ozeki to visit righteouf revenge, instead we got a thrilling, fast moving fight that Terunofuji won, just the way we were all sure he would. Today he faces Chiyonokuni, who is also looking strong and fast this basho. If there’s any weakness left in Terunofuji’s knees or his ring sense, Chiyonokuni will find it and exploit it to his bese ability. (9:20)

Komusubi Mitakeumi (3–2) vs. ozeki Goeido (3–2)—Goeido started the tournament slow, which didn’t bode well because he’s once again kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] this basho. But he seems to have straightened himself out, and the last few days he’s been looking more amd more like the rikishi who ran a perfect 15–0 zensho yusho back in September. On the other hand Mitakeumi continues to be one of the strongest of the young rikishi to eneter the Makuuchi ranks in the past year. He just keeps getting better, and even when he makes a mistake, he seems to learn from it immediately, often putting it into practice in the very next match. (10:00)

M1 Endo (2–3) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (5–0)—Endo has had a run of bad luck this basho . . . the kind that many experience at the rank of M1. He’s looked very sharp, fighting at the top of his game, but he’s had to face an endless stream of yokozuna and ozeki opponents. Generally speaking, a M1 is doing quite well if he manages to finish Week 1 with two or three wins. Today he faces Hakuho, who seems to be building speed and strength as the tournament goes along. The slap/elbow smash that the yokozuna delivered to Mitakeumi at yesterday’s tachi-ai was a thing of brutal beauty. (11:17)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2017 (Day 5)

It’s Day 5 of the 2017 Natsu Basho and things are plenty exciting in Tokyo. The tournament is completely sold out for all fifteen days, so if you’re in Tokyo and wanting to attend, your only hope is the hundred-or-so tickets that they sell the morning of the event . . . so you’d have to go to the Ryogoku ward and stand in line at 6AM and HOPE that you’re not too far back in the line.

Only three rikishi remain unbeaten—yokozuna Harumafuji, yokozuna Hakuho, and sekiwake Takayasu—but a dozen contenders remain one win off the pace at 3–1, so the race for the yusho [tournament championship] is still pretty much up for grabs. And that’s a good thing. Too many tournaments in recent years have been down to one or two clear leaders before nakabi [the middle day . . . the middle Sunday of the tournament].

It would be great if the new norm became that there wasn’t even a clear leaderboard before that point, and the yusho contenders only became clear in the final five days of the basho. And with the strength of the current yokozuna plus the surge of rikishi like Takayasu, Mitakeumi, Tamawashi, and Terunofuji, there’s no reason why we couldn’t see six different yusho winners each year for at least the next couple of years.

Yesterday, Takayasu continued to show his focus and resolve, dispatching komusubi Mitakeumi without even working up a sweat. Terunofuji also looked strong pulling even to a 2–2 record by handily beating M2 Chiyoshima.

On the down side, yokozuna Kisenosato lost an unfortunate match to M1 Endo. The yokozuna had the advantage, particularly when Endo’s foot started to slide out from under him. But it seemed like Kisenosato believed that was an unrecoverable position for his opponent, and Endo managed to scramble back up without touching the clay and charge straight into Kisenosato before the bigger man knew what was happening. That dropped the yokozuna to 2–2 and reinforced the lesson: Never stop until you’re CERTAIN your opponent is down.

We also have our first withdrawal of the basho. Yokozuna Kakuryu is going kyujo [absence for injury] siting problems with his left ankle. Now that COULD be true . . . but he came into the tournament as the only yokozuna who was said to be at full health, and he hasn’t taken any particularly bad spills over the first four days, only bad losses. Even his one win over Endo seemed pretty lucky, as the M1 appeared to overextend himself rather than being outmaneuvered by the yokozuna. I know I’ve been predicting this for the past two years, but I think we’re seeing the final days of Kakuryu’s career. He just doesn’t have what it takes to perform like a yokozuna anymore, and with the surge of young up-and-comers, that’s just becoming more and more evident. I don’t think he’ll hang it up after this basho, but if his fortunes don’t change significantly in Nagoya, I expect he’ll announce his retirement in July.

I’m really enjoying the uncertainty of this basho, and each day I come to the coverage wondering what surprises I’ll see today. (For instance, did you catch the crazy full-body flip that Tochinoshin laid on Ura yesterday? If not, go back and watch it—2:55 on yesterday’s video. It was a thing of beauty!

M1 Endo (2–2) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (4–0)—Yesterday, Endo became the first rikishi ever to get a kinboshi [gold star award] from yokozuna Kisenosato, and he very nearly had another one against Kakuryu on Day 3, plus he beat ozeki Terunofuji handily on Day 1. All of that is to say that he’s having a pretty good basho so far. Takayasu, on the other hand, is still undefeated and has been having a GREAT basho so far. That makes this one of the marquis bouts for today. (10:25)

Ozeki Terunofuji (2–2) vs. sekiwake Kotoshogiku (1–3)—Take a second to think back to Day 14 of the March tournament. Terunofuji was in the hunt for the yusho, and Kotoshogiku needed to win BOTH of his remaining matches in order to regain the rank of ozeki. Day 14 was when they went head-to-head, and everyone was expecting a big, brawling, hard-fought match worthy of the dramatic situation both rikishi were in. Instead, Terunofuji pulled a huge henka and Kotoshogiku went sprawling on his belly. It was a gutless play by the ozeki, preventing the sekiwake from being able to fight for his future. I bring that up because this match is the first time these two have faced each other since then. (12:10)

Komusubi Mitakeumi (3–1) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (4–0)—Mitakeumi continues to improve tournament to tournament, and even match to match. On the other hand, Hakuho hasn’t won a yusho in a year, and he seems not just focused but hungry. (13:15)

Yokozuna Kisenosato (2–2) vs. M2 Chiyoshoma (1–3)—Kisenosato may have given up his first ever kinboshi yesterday, but he also proved that despite his injury, he’s in this basho to win it . . . and his fighting spirit will take him a long way. But let’s be clear, he IS hurt, and pretty badly. He can’t do much of anything with his left arm and that lets his opponents know exactly where to attack. Today’s question is does Chiyoshoma have the strength and talent to successfully press that advantage? (15:25)